Take time to say thanks to a veteran

My father, William H. Fortenberry, training as a Naval aviator in WWII

My father, William H. Fortenberry, training as a Naval aviator in WWII

Veterans Day 2013
Somewhere in all of my many boxes and envelopes of memories is my DD-214.
Many of you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but for anyone who has served in the U.S. military, the DD-214 is more than just a piece of paper.
It is a short-form record of a service member’s term in uniform – proof that the person whose name is on the paper is a veteran.
My “Report of Separation” doesn’t say much about my days in the U.S. Army.
It states that I was a sharpshooter. It gives my rank at separation (E-4), my military job specialty (public information specialist), my dates of service and the type of discharge I received.
Honorable, of course.
It’s just a piece of paper, and while it accurately reflects the black-and-white facts of my two years in uniform, it doesn’t come close to telling the story of a young boy who became a man, and to this day is proud to say he is a veteran.
While I served during Vietnam, I did not serve in Vietnam, and when I think back on my days in uniform, I still feel a twinge of guilt for not having been in combat.
Oh, I wanted to be. I was ready for action, gung-ho in the middle of helicopter flight training in Texas when they “washed” me out because my vision wasn’t up to flight standards.
My dream of flying a helicopter gunship in Vietnam went down the drain in an Army optometrist’s puke-green office. I spent the rest of my time in service behind a desk, pecking on a manual typewriter, churning out stories about things that really didn’t matter or spinning tales about my commanding officer who desperately wanted a promotion before he retired and faded away.
I often looked out the window of my office as Hueys flew here and there on training missions, and had a kind of romance with the skies that went unfulfilled. Now and then one of the pilots I knew would feel sorry for me and invite me along as we zipped over the hills of Texas. Occasionally, one of them would let me handle the collective and the cyclic for a few moments and just for a heartbeat or two I’d pretend to have my wings.
I didn’t realize then how fortunate I was, and every Veterans Day, and especially on Memorial Day, I think about the fellows who did earn their wings and flew home in flag-covered boxes.
My heroes.
And I think about those guys who flunked out of flight school and ended up on the ground, eating dirt, dodging bullets, courageously taking the fight to the Viet Cong, and praying for the day they’d “rotate” home.
My heroes.
Sometimes I think about the guys I met in basic training who wound up in “Tiger Town” for advanced infantry training – a sure-bet ticket to the hell of war.
Whatever happened to them?
All of this brings me to the point of this column: What will you be doing next Monday?
The mail won’t be delivered.
School will be out.
Wall Street will be closed.
And if you’re one of the fortunate few, you’ll have the day off.
I hope that everyone who reads this remembers that Monday is not just another holiday; it’s Veterans Day, the day we set aside to honor everyone who has worn – and is wearing – a U.S. military uniform.
Please take a few minutes to say a quiet prayer for those who are serving, and if you think about it, seek out a veteran and just say thanks.
I know they’d appreciate it.

The Hanging Tree and Revolutionary War revenge

Sign near Biggerstaff Hanging Tree

Sign near Biggerstaff Hanging Tree

An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. And a noose for a noose.
Most people think that the Revolutionary War ended when the British surrendered to George Washington in Yorktown in 1781. Although it’s true that no more major battles were fought, British troops remained in the United States for another two years, and for some people here in western North Carolina, the war was far from over.
As long as the Redcoats roamed the land, there would be no peace for the American Patriots.
And payback would be hell.
On the 19th of June 1771 my fifth great-grandfather, Capt. Benjamin Merrill, was captured by British troops from his plantation in Rowan County and marched to the courthouse in Hillsborough where he was hanged for being a leader of the independence movement.
The judge pronounced this sentence: “You are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken
out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your body divided into four quarters. . .”
He left a widow and 10 children.
It would be nine years until his family would get revenge.
Shortly after the Over Mountain Men (including Patriots from Lincoln County) beat the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain, Merrill’s brother, William, had the “privilege” of swinging Col. Ambrose Mills from an oak tree in neighboring Rutherford County. It was Col. Mills who had led the party that had captured his brother, and it was Col. Mills who would pay.
“It was late at night. Pine-knot torches were lit as the over-mountain men and their companions gathered four deep around the condemned prisoners,” one historian wrote. “Three at a time the Tories were swung from limbs of the giant oak. After the ninth hanging, a halt was called. Not all the patriots were ready to grant a reprieve. One bitter Tory-hater pointed to the limp bodies and voiced satisfaction: “Would to God every tree in the wilderness bore such fruit as that!”
The remaining condemned men were pardoned, and the nine already dead were left dangling from the tree as a warning to other loyalists in the area to not side with England.
Just as Capt. Merrill had been hanged as “warning” to the Patriots, Col. Mills was hanged as a “warning” those loyal to the crown.
Merrill was finally avenged for his brother’s death nine years earlier,.
But revenge ran deep on both sides.
Four months later, British troops raided William Merrill’s farm in Rowan County and carried him away over the protests of his wife, Mary, whose tongue was sliced in half by the Redcoats for giving them a piece of her mind.
Two of his sons, Benjamin and John, were hunting nearby and later told relatives that they saw the soldiers at a distance and heard their father’s voice, but they were afraid to shoot for fear they would shoot their father.
Leading the raid on Merrill’s farm was none other than son of the man that Merrill had hanged for hanging his brother. William Merrill was brought back to the same hanging tree in Rutherford County and was strung up to his death.
As we celebrated Veterans Day this week, few of us probably gave any thought to our first veterans – the brave men who battled against tremendous odds more than two centuries ago to give us the freedom we enjoy today.
They should never be forgotten.

Memorial Day 2011

Martin Beck’s grave

Please honor those who gave their lives for our nation

May 25, 2011

I was a dumb kid that summer back in 1969, filled with a dangerous mix of patriotism and an absolutely foolish lack of fear. Bold, confident, and seeking adventure, I was just the kind of person the U.S. Army was looking for to pilot a helicopter in the jungles of Vietnam.
On my very first day of basic training in the piney woods of Fort Polk, La., some of that brashness disappeared when a drill sergeant screamed into my ear and called me names I can’t repeat in a family newspaper. By the end of my first week I was wondering if I was really up to the task.
I was not alone.
All of us in E-3-1 were wondering the same thing, but somehow we endured – and grew – in the process.
One night while I sat on my bunk reading the Army Times, I turned the page to read the list of those who had died the previous week in Vietnam and felt a cold chill when I saw it in black-and-white:
BECK, Robert Martin, LTC, 24 July 1969.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Col. Beck, a Green Beret infantry commander, was the father of a friend of mine, and he, like several others I had known, was now little more than a statistic in a war full of painful statistics. Shot down by hostile fire in the Kien Tuong Province, Col. Beck was only 43 years old when the helicopter in which he was an observer was shot out of the sky by enemy fire. He had spent half of his life in uniform.
I felt a deep sadness for the entire Beck family, but instead of his death opening my eyes to the reality of what was ahead, I became even more determined to earn my wings and become a chopper pilot in Vietnam.
Col. Beck’s death needed to be avenged, and I was just the man (which I really wasn’t) to do it.
I made it though basic and headed off to Fort Wolters, TX for primary flight training. Fortunately for me, my days inside the cockpit of a helicopter were numbered, and what the Army claimed was bad vision, resulted in my spending the rest of my Army time pecking away on a typewriter instead of dodging bullets.
Vietnam claimed 2,197 helicopter pilots, the youngest of them barely 19. Most of them spent less than six months in the air before they lost their lives. They were heroes – every single one of them – and every American man and woman who stepped foot on that crummy nation were – and still are – heroes in my book.
* * *
Forty years ago last week I turned in my Army fatigues and headed home. My days as a soldier were over; my days as a journalist were beginning.
Every year this time – as our nation honors those who have died in service to their country- I think about Col. Beck and Pvt. Danny Daniels and Pvt. Kenneth Cassel and others I knew who perished in uniform.
I think about Sgt. Paul Lawing from Lincolnton – one of the last casualties of that horrible war – and get a lump in my throat.
Somehow, honoring these people one day a year is simply not enough. And unfortunately too many of us get so caught up in our own lives on Memorial Day that we forget the reason the day is celebrated.
When you’re cooking out next Monday, enjoying the holiday with family and friends, please take a minute and salute all of those precious souls throughout our nation’s history who have given their lives so that you can enjoy your day in freedom.
And also say a prayer for those brave men and women who are halfway around the world and just a heartbeat away from their own ultimate sacrifice.

In Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain

‘Out in Luckenbach, Texas ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain. . .’

LUCKENBACH, Texas – There’s something about this place that keeps me coming back year after year.
To me, there’s no better place to put things into perspective than the wide, open spaces of Texas, and Luckenbach is the perfect place to start the process.
Time seems to stand still here, and problems – big and small – are forgotten in the perfect setting of huge live oak trees, crowing roosters, friendly faces, and of course, some mighty fine music.
Toss in a cold Lone Star Lite or two, and you have the makings of a perfect afternoon.
The stress of recent months began drifting away, and a late afternoon thunderstorm seemed to wash it all away.
The following morning my brother and I set out looking for some forgotten places in history.
Our primary mission was to find a particular hidden cemetery, but as usual, we found other hidden historical treasures,  and I found something of myself as well.
After a couple of near-misses, we ultimately found what we had been looking for – an old cemetery far off the beaten path, through a pasture, down a dusty road, across a cattle crossing, and on a small rise above Spring Creek near the tiny town of Harper.
The cemetery is unmarked, and we entered it by carefully crossing over a barbed wire fence and skirting more than a few prickly thistles.
This quiet place and forgotten spot is the final resting place for four men – Union sympathizers in the Civil War – who were hanged by Confederate troops, dropped in what has become known to some as “Dead Man’s Hole,” then left to rot in the creek.
Their crime? They loved their country, and refused to be conscripted into the Confederate Army.
After their bodies were weighted down with rocks and tossed into the creek, their devastated widows and children – kept under guard about 20 miles away – were informed of the hangings. Days after pleading with the Confederate officers to let them bury their dead, the women finally were taken to the creek where they waded elbow-deep in the water to retrieve the bodies – so badly decomposed, only one was identifable. The women hauled them up a hill, laid them together on sheets, and then dug a mass grave in the blazing hot July sun.
Sebird Henderson, Gus Tegener, Hiram Nelson, and Frank Scott were brave men, frontier pioneers who helped build a nation that was moving westward. Like most of their neighbors in Gillespie County, many of German descent who came to this country for its promise, they were opposed to secession.
For their loyalty to the United States, they were killed in cold blood.
There are other graves at Spring Creek, some of them Indian fighters, others massacred by Indians or taken by disease.
All of these people had a dream – a dream of pushing the wilderness back and building a home and a future for their families in a rough and untamed land.
They were brave people. Determined people. Men, women and children who faced incredible odds, but never gave up or gave in.
They spoke to me that day, and reminded me that the challenges and losses I have faced in my life pale in comparison to theirs.
Life moves on with or without us, and for as long as I am here, I hope to move with it

National term limits group praises Forteberry

U.S. Term Limits praises Ken Fortenberry

Fairfax, VA – U.S. Term Limits (USTL), the leader in the national movement to limit terms for elected officials, praised North Carolina congressional candidate Ken Fortenberry for promising to support and co-sponsor an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting congressional terms.

Blumel commented on Fortenberry’s pledge saying, “Ken Fortenberry is leading the way for the other candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives by being an early signer of the term limits pledge.

Fortenberry’s commitment to returning to citizen government in Washington, D.C. is a beacon that should be followed by candidates across the nation.”
The U.S. Term Limits Amendment Pledge has been provided to every announced candidate for federal office. It reads, “I pledge that as a member of Congress I will cosponsor and vote for the U.S. Term Limits Amendment of three (3) House terms and two (2) Senate terms and no longer limit.”

U.S. Term Limits Constitutional Amendment has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and the House of Representatives by Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ). This session of Congress marks the first time in nearly twenty years that a serious term limits bill has appeared in both Houses with co-sponsorship.

Blumel noted, “The dysfunction in Washington, D.C. has never been greater, and people have had enough of politics as usual. Many members of Congress are getting on board as they become increasingly frustrated with the status quo. Fortunately, with candidates like Ken Fortenberry jumping into the fray, the political pressure for the constitutional amendment will continue building toward successful passage.”

According to the last nationwide poll on term limits conducted by Public Opinion Dynamics for Fox News in September 2010, the issue enjoys wide bi-partisan support. The poll showed that 78 percent of Americans support congressional term limits, including 74 percent independents and 74 percent of the nation’s Democrats.
Blumel concluded, “America is in trouble. Our career politicians have let the people down. It is time to limit their terms and return control of our nation to people who have actually had to create a job, earn an honest paycheck and pay a mortgage. It is time for a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms.”
The term limits amendment bills would require a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate, and ratification by 38 states in order to become part of the Constitution.

Secure American borders, protect America

Ken talks with a Border Patrol agent on the US-Mexico border

We must protect our borders

I recently visited the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, and it was an eye-opening experience about the problems faced by our brave Border Patrol agents and the critical need for us to protect our borders from illegal immigrants.

For too many years our leaders in Washington have given lip service to the very real and significant problems created by illegal immigration into the United States. Our schools, hospitals, social services and courts face tremendous burdens, and American taxpayers are suffering as a result.

Securing our borders needs to be a much higher priority for our nation, and we can no longer skirt the issue, be “politically correct,” and play politics with such an important issue.

In talking with the Border Patrol, I learned that what they need most is more technological assets, and more eyes in the sky, specifically helicopters and drones.

While most of their days are spent with binoculars scanning the shoreline of the Rio Grande River and using airboats to patrol the river, they say that they could do much more to secure the border if helicopters and drones could patrol the skies more regularly to seek out those who attempt to enter our country illegally.

One of the officers told me that his group confiscates about 2,000 pounds of illegal drugs every week in the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras area alone, and dozens of illegal immigrants are apprehended as they swim the river to enter the U.S.

On the day I was in Eagle Pass, dozens of Mexicans dotted the shoreline along a half-mile stretch, presumably doing their own surveillance work in anticipation of an attempt to enter our nation. On the U.S. side of the border, a municipal golf course runs alongside the river, and one agent said he apprehended an illegal – complete with golf bag – as he entered the U.S. and obviously hoped to fit in with golfers on the U.S. side.

Our agents put their lives on the line every day, doing their very best to secure our borders, and we must give them the assets they need to do their jobs.

At the same time, our national policy needs to be firm and enforced. Entering our border illegally is a crime.

It is time to put Americans first, and to stop encouraging and subsidizing illegal immigration.








Sick of the nonsense of the career politicians?

Everyone I talk with is fed up with what’s going on in Washington. While the politicians play party politics and point fingers at each other, the people in North Carolina are struggling just to get by, and are worrying about how to pay the bills and whether they will have a job next week.

One of my grown children told me recently that he didn’t think that he would ever have the chance to achieve the American dream because the politicians have created such a mess. That is a sad commentary on the leadership of this nation, and the direction we’re heading.  It’s time to do what’s right for a change, and to put aside party labels long enough to be Americans first.

Most people don’t care about party labels. They care about whether they can pay the bills and if their children will be able to have a decent future. The far right and the far left have polarized this nation, and their extremism is crippling all of us. We need be Americans first, and to concentrate on America first.

It’s time for the nonsense to end and for the people to say enough is enough.  We’re all sick and tired of Washington and career politicians. We need someone to speak for the average person, not be a spokesman for the rich and powerful.

We need people to work together – not apart – and we need people from every day walks to life to be our representatives in Washington, not career politicians who are driving us to the brink of the cliff.



It’s time to clean House in Washington

The circus in Washington seems to have everyone concerned and frustrated – from Denver, North Carolina to Denver, Colorado.

The slick politicians only seem interested in 10-second soundbites for the evening news and posturing themselves for their own re-elections. Some of them are so ideologically rigid that they can’t get along with those whom they regard as enemies – not fellow Americans.

Meanwhile, here in North Carolina many people are living from paycheck-to-paycheck (or with no paycheck at all), and are worried about the bottom falling out again. The last thing we need right now is more uncertainty for a fragile economy, and politicians who can’t work together for the common good.

We’re fed up.

The people who “represent” us in Washington don’t seem to represent us at all. They line their pockets and political warchests with money from special interest groups and are wined and dined by the very people who sent our economy down the tubes in the first place.

They are out of touch with reality and out of touch with the people who entrusted them with public office.

We need problem solvers in Washington, not finger-pointers.

We need men and women who can set aside party politics and work together to get our country firmly back on its feet.

We need statesmen, not politicians.

We need to clean house.

A visit with western writer Elmer Kelton

Ken with Elmer and Anna Kelton in the kitchen of their San Angelo home

A Tribute to Elmer Kelton

August 26, 2009

Elmer Kelton’s life story is the story of America itself. Raised on a west Texas ranch, he fought the Nazis as a combat infantryman in World War II, fell in love with an Austrian girl, returned home to finish college and raise a family. A newspaper reporter-turned-novelist, he became an award-winning author, and one of his books. “The Good Old Boys” was made into a TV movie starring fellow Texan Tommy Lee Jones.
On a trip to Texas two summers ago Elmer and his wife, Anna, welcomed my brother and me into their San Angelo home and made us feel like part of the family. It was truly one of the highlights of my life.
Beyond his masterful literary skills and ability to tell a story that makes you feel as though you are living it, Elmer was a down-to-earth fellow who never forgot his simple roots and the basic values that made him an American hero.
We had a kinship, both of us newspapermen and both of us authors, but my one measly book pales in comparison to the 60-plus books he wrote about ranches, cowboys, Texas independence, and relationships among people. He wrote bang-bang-shoot-’em-up stories, but most of his books were about common people who became uncommon heroes as they struggled to tame the west, battling drought, Comanches, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, the Mexican Army and sometimes each other. The Western Writers of America voted him Best Western Author of All Time and awarded him its Spur Award seven times.
Elmer’s daughter told me a few weeks ago that her 83-year-old dad was battling pneumonia, but seemed to be improving.
“We are not sure how long Daddy’s recovery will take, but hope to have him home and back at the computer within a few weeks,” she said.
Elmer never made it back home to his computer. He died Saturday, and a piece of the American west died with him. Happy trails, Elmer. See you on the other side of the river.